A recent New York Times article explored the standard work week, and whether or not long-running predictions of said work week will ever go from 5 days to 4.

So where did this 40-hour, 5-day work week come from? In what is often cited as the first known example, a New England mill expanded the one-day weekend in 1908 from Sunday to accommodate Jewish workers who observed the Saturday Sabbath. Less than two decades later, Henry Ford followed suit, instituting a five-day workweek throughout his company and popularizing the idea.

Soon this model was everywhere. The article points out that in the US, we revere work every bit as much as we do the results of the work. Now-retired radio talk show host Neal Boortz once famously said that the 40-hour work week is for losers – that 40 hours should be the bare minimum, and true “winners” work much longer.

But you don’t have to spend a whole lot of time researching to discover Boortz isn’t some lone wolf workaholic. Although every large company spends a lot of time talking about “work-life balance” and promoting their “family-friendly” HR policies, in too many cases, these words are contradicted by actions on the floor or in the cube farm. The people who work pretty much 24/7, that answer every email, no matter when it arrives, that forward documents to co-workers with a “3:27 AM” time stamp on the email – those people are usually revered for their “work ethic,” singled out for praise in staff meeting, and are usually promoted further and faster than those that adhere to a rigid 40-hour availability.

The New York Times article cites three reasons why any changes to the “five 8s” schedule are so slow to come: interest, faith in employees and understanding of the benefits that a shortened week can offer. The article articulates these pretty well, but in this space I’m going to give my opinion on these 3 factors.

Interest

For pretty much everyone working today, the 40-hour, 5-day work week has been firmly established their entire lives. So since it’s been around for 100 years or more, that means it works, right? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? This is the way it’s always been done, so we’re going to continue to do what’s always been done.

I have a very interesting personal story about non-traditional work schedules.

In 2012, my company agreed to purchase another company with a different service territory. Our CEO was looking to retire, so the CEO of the acquired company would be the CEO of the merged company. He came to our offices a couple of days after the merger announcement for a town hall meeting. Afterward, someone asked me what I thought of the merger and the incoming CEO. “Let me put it this way,” I said. “If someone asks him what one thing impresses him in the universe more than anything else, if he’s honest, he’ll answer ‘Me.’ That ego is so big, I don’t know how he got his head through the auditorium door.”

Then rumors circulated that the 4-day work week that we in the Nuclear division had been using for decades was on the chopping block. Turns out the new CEO did not believe in anything other than 8-hour, 5-day weeks, and everyone would be adhering to that schedule. But the Chief Nuclear Officer told him to take a long walk off a short pier and pound sand. He was ready to get into a fistfight over it. So the 4-day work week in Nuclear would remain. Then when the merger closed, the Board of Directors suddenly changed course and sent the new CEO packing, putting our CEO in his place. I’ve always thought his “my way or the highway” mentality was a factor in that decision.

Faith in employees

Let me say this in plain terms to everyone that works for someone else – you are not trusted. Your employer thinks that any change will result in you trying to game the system or look for ways to just work less and produce less.

Sometimes this isn’t completely unwarranted. Places that are home to entry-level jobs, such as call centers, typically have restrictive policies because the workers aren’t trusted because too many bad things have happened. I have had 1 call center job in my career. There were a number of seasoned professionals there, but the majority of the workers were very young and for a bunch of them, this was their first real job. You could find attempts to cheat on time sheets, office theft, and even sex in the quiet room. Most people mature and don’t engage in junk like that as they and their careers age. But the employer mistrust generally remains.

Understanding of the benefits that a shortened week can offer

In the NYT article, it is noted that momentum seems to be building for shorter work weeks because recent studies have found productivity increases. Up to now, most of the studies have focused on employee happiness with shorter work weeks. But if more studies show that it’s also good for business, more businesses might go with the idea.

My thought? Businesses don’t know what benefits alternate work schedules would bring because no one else is implementing them. Everyone is waiting for someone else to go first. NO ONE wants to go first. When you hear corporate claptrap like “industry standard” and “best practices” and the like, what is really being said is, “this is what everyone else is doing, so that is what we must do.”

I’ve argued in other spaces that the reason there is so much income inequality and upward immobility in the US is because once someone settled on the “49.5% to execs, 49.5% to investors, 1% to employees” model of profit distribution, and everyone else adopted it, there aren’t many places for rank-and-file workers to turn to make things better. This current model ensures workers get tiny raises, if any at all, and their health insurance premium increases swallow up every penny of the raise.

We’ll be stuck in this position forever unless some company has the fortitude to go first and say, “That’s enough. Executives and investors will have to be OK with getting one-third of the profits instead of half, because the rank-and-file employees are going to get one-third of the profits in the form of REAL raises each year.” It’s challenging for workers to be motivated to excel when you know that your excellence will be rewarded at year-end with a reduction in take-home pay while the execs and investors keep all the profit for themselves. Give the workers a real raise for good performance, and watch the performance get better every year. Once one very large company changes the model, others will follow suit. It just takes that one to go first.

The same applies to shorter work weeks or other alternative work schedules. It will just take a few big companies making new schedules the standard, and when productivity goes way up, other will come along for the ride.

What are your thoughts on the standard work week and possible alternatives? Share them in the comments.

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